I retired as a scientist at age 50 to pursue my culinary passion and culinary school. This meant, of course, that my fellow culinary students were younger than my children — as were many of the faculty. Yet, it all came together. The older students looked to the culinary juniors for energy and encouragement. The younger set looked to the few “oldsters” for a bit of academic counsel and faculty-management strategy. And some of the faculty did need to be managed.
One of my favorite classes was Chinese Cooking, taught by an excellent Chinese-born-and-raised chef. Yet, the class was, at times, a bit like walking on egg shells. If you missed a cue on directions, her wrath had no boundaries. A class whisper while our Chinese instructor was speaking would bring an order for silence — sometimes seemingly interminable — while we all stood at attention until she was willing to speak again. We all strived to get and stay on her good side — since the bad side was downright scary. So, when she told me she was looking for a team of students to compete on behalf of the College in a Chicago cooking competition, I never considered “no” as an answer. “Of course. I’d love to”, I said.
With little information, other than being told we would make Mongolian Beef, a team of students packed food, woks and knives into the College vehicle and headed to Chicago a few days later. It was en route that the terrifying facts began to unfold:
- We were about to enter Chicago Chinatown’s version of Iron Chef, Master Chef or whatever you call your local nail-biting culinary competition.
- All the participants (except us) were accomplished Chinatown restauranteurs.
- The judges were Chinese chefs.
- The entire competition would be televised on Chicago’s Chinese television station.
- Participants would be interviewed while we cooked.
“Can I go home now?”, I whispered feebly to my teammates? Clearly, the answer to that was no.
So, we got on stage and chopped and stir-fried our Mongolian Beef. I don’t know what was worse — the incredulous judges or our instructor’s fearsome eyes threatening the end of our culinary career if we made a mistake. Somehow we did survive the ordeal — and even mustered a few good laughs amongst ourselves (when nobody was looking). Most important, I will NEVER EVER forget how to make Mongolian Beef.
Mongolian Beef is a very simple Chinese stir-fry. Yet, it demonstrates most of the basic principles of a good stir fry — ingredients prepared ahead of time, a very hot wok, meat fried first and removed, vegetables cooked second, and then a return of meat and any additional seasonings last. You can’t go to far wrong with these steps in a good stir fry. If you like Chinese food and haven’t attempted your own Chinese stir-fry, this one would be a good place to start. However, I do recommend you stay away from the TV cameras while you’re cooking. It is much more relaxing without.
Recipe By: Recipe adapted from Chef Vivian Macht
Serving Size: 8
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 pounds beef, flank
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons water
1/3 teaspoon pepper, black
4 teaspoons corn starch
3 tablespoons oil, canola
4 tablespoons ginger, fresh, matchsticks
3 ounces soy sauce
1 ounce rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar, brown
3 tablespoons oil, canola
2 tablespoons corn starch, mixed with water
as needed oil, canola, for frying
1. Slice steak into third lengthwise. Slice each third very thin across the grain. (slices about 1/8 inch x 1 1/2 inch). Toss steak with baking soda. Set aside.
2. Combine next six ingredients (soy, garlic, water, pepper, cornstarch, canola oil). Mix with beef and set aside.
3. Cut scallions into 2 inch angled pieces. Reserve a few pieces for a final garnish.
Cut ginger into thin julienne “matchsticks”. Combine next four ingredients (soy, rice wine, sugar, oil) and set aside.
Prepare cornstarch paste (2 tablespoons with a bit of water). Set this aside to use as needed to thicken final sauce.
4. Heat wok very hot with a bit of canola oil. Coat sides of pan. When very hot, add the beef and let it sit for a minute. Stir a few seconds. Cook just until rare.
Remove meat from wok.
5. Add a bit more oil to wok if needed. Add ginger and fry for about 20 seconds.
Add green onion and stir very briefly (about 5 seconds).
Return meat to wok and stir. Pour in final seasoning mix (soy, rice wine, sugar and oil). Stir until meat is cooked and sauce begins to thicken. If the sauce is too thin for your liking, add a bit of the cornstarch paste and stir until sauce is the consistency you want (similar to a meat gravy).
6. Serve immediately. Garnish with a bit of fresh scallion.
NOTE: I’m busy traveling and searching for new culinary treats, so I’ll be signing off for a couple of weeks.